David Cohn Experiments with Journalism

5 12 2011

A new type of reporting? Photo by Meghan Rosen

ImageBy Meghan Rosen

David Cohn doesn’t look like the new face of journalism.  He’s boyish, with an untamed mop of black curls and a stubbly beard: Picture a darker Mark Zuckerberg, but more stylishly dressed.

It’s early in the morning when Cohn comes to talk with our class about Spot.Us, his three-year-old experiment in crowdfunding journalism, but he thrums with energy. If I had to pick one word to describe Cohn, I’d say ‘caffeinated.’ Or ‘bright-eyed.’ Or maybe even ‘feverish.’  You get the idea. Cohn’s passionate about his experiment, and it shows.

I’d heard of crowdsourcing before (Wikipedia), and even crowdfunding (my husband and I registered at the microlending site Kiva.org for our wedding), but crowdfunding journalism was a new idea for me.  It probably shouldn’t have been; Cohn’s website, Spot.Us has been matching freelance reporters with funding for three years.

But he’s the first to admit that he didn’t invent the concept of donating to journalism: People have been contributing to NPR for decades.  The difference is the level of transparency.

“When you donate to NPR,” he said, “You cover your eyes, throw money over a fence, and hope that it goes towards good journalism.”

With his organization, donors don’t have to trust that their money is being used for good; they see exactly where it goes.

So, how does Spot.Us work, exactly? Reporters come to the site and pitch an idea for a story. They estimate the cost of reporting (travel, freelance writing rates, etc), and then, they wait for people to donate.

“They’re pitching to the world,” Cohn said, “And the world collectively has a freelance budget.”

Potential donors peruse a ‘menu’ of story ideas, and contribute to those they’d like to see fleshed out and reported.  People can choose which news to support, and they can donate just a few bucks. (Reporters can pitch anything they’d like to write about, but Cohn weeds out certain types of stories. Breaking news, for example, doesn’t work because Spot.Us reporters have to wait for funds.)

Most of the money Spot.Us raises comes from small donors, though the largest donation they’ve received came from Barbra Streisand, for a story about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“My mother was thrilled,” Cohn said.

60-65% of pitches get funded, and Spot.Us typically publishes two to three stories per week. Spot.Us isn’t going to sustain a freelance career, Cohn said, but it can be part of multiple revenue streams for a reporter.

“It’s just another thing for reporters to have in their toolkit,” he said.

Cohn talked with our class for more than an hour about the changing world of journalism, and how to use the Internet as a testing-ground for new ideas. How does a 29-year-old writer (he started out as a tech reporter for Wired, then worked at Seed Magazine) conceive of and market a radical concept like Spot.Us?  What can beginner journalists like us learn from this self-proclaimed ‘geek reporter’? I wanted to know more.

So, I interviewed him.  Here’s what he had to say.

20 minutes with David Cohn

How did you spread the word about Spot.Us in the beginning?

Well, first of all, I was a relentless self-marketer. And, I was lucky that I had some kind of connections and media relations already.

I also blogged about it.  At the time we launched Spot.Us, the concept of community-funded reporting was weird. So, I created this narrative: ‘Hey guys we’re trying a crazy experiment, and I invite you to follow along.’

I’m a big evangelizer in terms of experimentation. One general rule of the Internet is that it’s cheaper and easier to try something than to debate whether or not to try it.

People were watching what we were doing not just to see what happened with Spot.Us, but for this meta-narrative.

Do you think it’s important for journalists to use social media like Twitter and Facebook?

I wouldn’t get caught up in the ‘Twitterness’ of Twitter. It’s just a new way for people to communicate.

Do you tweet?

I do tweet. I am a tweeter. I jumped on it relatively early- in 2007. In the beginning I followed everybody, but now I follow around 2000 people.

How many people follow you?


[David Cohn’s twitter handle is Digidave. As of Dec. 5, he had 10,381 followers, including me.]

After Twitter, what’s the next new thing in social media?

Twitter is not going away. The company might die, or change, or a better product might come along, but the vocabulary isn’t going to change. So, even if you spend a lot of time on Twitter, your time isn’t going to be wasted, because you will learn from it.

What topics did you initially think Spot.Us would cover?

When I first launched Spot.Us I was in San Francisco, so I had on San Francisco blinders. But I instantly started getting stories about the Oakland police.  So, we’ve done a bunch of Oakland police stuff, but there are all these other issues in Oakland that just don’t get covered- like crime spotting, neighborhood associations, and certain PTAs.  They are serious issues. The Chronicle doesn’t cover them, and neither does the Tribune.

Things are bubbling up even more lately, with the Occupy Oakland stuff.  We’ve raised $2000 to help reporters cover it.

Now that Spot.Us has spread beyond San Francisco, what’s next?

Spot.Us will continue growing. But we have big news — We’re becoming a partner with the longtime nonprofit organization, American Public Media.

It’s an acquisition, though, not a buyout. I’m not going to be a millionaire.

[David says he’s a shameless self-promoter, but when he talked with me about the APM partnership, he was really very humble. He didn’t, for example, tell me that APM is the largest owner of public radio stations in the country, or that after NPR, it’s the second largest producer of public radio.  But I didn’t have to know those things to understand that the news was A Big Deal.  David’s excitement was palpable. He made me promise not to spill until APM announced the acquisition publicly, which they did just six days ago, on Nov. 29.]

Congratulations! What does that mean for you and Spot.Us?

Spot.Us was just me and one other person, and I wanted to see if we could make it grow. As an experiment, I consider it a success. Now, it needs to become part of a larger organization.

I’m still going to be there, but technically, I’ll be ceding control. I’m excited to pass off some of the business duties. I don’t want to cut any more checks!

Are you working on any new projects?

I have a few babies in the idea phase. Some wouldn’t require that much time, but I’ve just never taken the time to get them started.




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